Academics from the Nitirat (Enlightened Jurists) group and well-known scholars are calling for whole scale reform of the courts, from legal texts to ideologies, to achieve a judicial system more in line with democracy.
After the 2006 coup, the courts have become one of the mechanisms contributing to political conflict in Thai society, therefore they need to uphold democratic and human rights principles to revive their credibility, the academic group told a university forum on Sunday, held under title “The Courts and Social Justice in Thailand.”
Worachet Pakeerut, a member of the Nitirat group and Thammasat associate professor of law, said the involvement of the courts in the political arena, such as the dissolution of three political parties in 2008 or ongoing prosecutions under the lèse majesté law only serves the establishment’s interests and contradicts democratic principles.
“This problem isn’t just at a normal level, but is deeply ingrained in the ideology widespread among judges,” he said.
His suggestion for court reform includes changes in the language of court motions. Instead of using the conventional ending phrase "Upon your benevolence, please, Your Honour," Worachet recommends "Kindly be informed so and adjudicate to serve the interests of law and justice."
Of a similar opinion is Nidhi Eowsriwong, a history scholar, who recommends that law schools need to readjust their training to yield legal scholars who would read the law within a democratic framework, not that of an “absolute monarchical” regime. While the courts should stay independent, judges should be endorsed by parliament, creating more balance between the judiciary, legislature and executive, he said.
“Political development is stuck because culturally we have placed so much value on so-called experts. We do not believe in our own human dignity which is the heart of a democratic regime,” Nidhi said. “We are taught to resent politicians, and these experts float out of nowhere to control the people we elected. The 2007 constitution obviously created many such “holy people” to intervene [in the system.]”
The academics also elaborated on the use of undemocratic laws and overriding interpretations against the constitutional monarchy system, and called on the judges to review guidelines for the lèse majesté law.
Sawatri Suksri, Thammasat law lecturer, said that judges disregard the innocence of defendants, which has to remain presumed until they are proven guilty. In the case of Ampon Tangnoppakul, a 61-year-old man who was convicted for lèse majesté, witnesses were lacking and many doubts still remain, she said, but the judges still gave him 20 years imprisonment.
Sawatri said the judges also denied defendants the right to bail, depriving those accused of sufficient time to prepare their case. Among lèse majesté defendants, Somyot Prueksakasemsuk, a magazine editor sentenced to 10 years, was denied bail 13 times; Thai-American Joe Gordon was denied bail 9 times, and Ampon was denied bail 8 times.
The law was also interpreted according to the ideology of the absolute monarchy era, she said, pointing to the case of red shirt activist Yossawarit Chuklom who was sentenced to two years for gestures implying the King, or the case of Papatchanan Chingin, a red shirt activist from Nakhon Ratchasima, who was charged in 2005 with burning coffins with the words “His Majesty” and “Gen Prem” on them.
“The cases show that the judges over-interpreted from legal texts. From now on, not only defamation and insults will be charged, but also showing disrespect,” Sawatri said.
At the end of the seminar, former deputy Supreme Court judge Sathit Pairoh, read out a statement calling on the judiciary to reform itself, because judicial activism after the 2006 coup has made the courts distrusted, and the public have doubts whether they could still remain as a respected authority.
The statement, signed by the Campaign Committee to Amend Article 112, Nitirat and four progressive red shirt groups, said the judiciary has implemented the law installed by the coup and is therefore deemed an accomplice of the military junta in overthrowing an elected government.
It called for the judges to uphold democratic principles and the rule of law and to proceed with judicial reform, to protect the people’s rights and liberty rather than those of the monarchy, and to avoid being seen as an obstacle to democracy.